In April 1937, Guernica was the first city to be deliberately targeted for aerial bombing. Guernica was the ancient capital of the Basques – a group who had withstood the advances of the army since the Spanish Civil War begun in 1936. The region’s resilient stand was punished by Franco when he allowed the unprotected city to be bombed by Hitler’s air force.
In 1935, General Erich Luderndorff had published “The Total War” (Die Totale Krieg) in which he argued that modern war was all encompassing and that no-one could or should necessarily be spared by the military. He argued that civilians were combatants and should be treated accordingly. His ideas were backed up in Fascist Italy where General Giulio Douhet produced a pamphlet which stated that an army’s advance might be suitably assisted by targeting civilians whose panic would severely hamper the ability of the enemy’s army to mobilise itself. Such panic could be delivered by “air-delivered terror”.
Franco’s Nationalists had little air force power. But Nazi Germany was very keen to try out its developing Luftwaffe. Hitler had sent out to Spain his Condor Legion lead by Lieutenant Colonel Wolfram von Richthofen, cousin of the Red Baron of World War One.
It is said that it was Richthofen who selected Guernica as a target. As previously stated, the city had great importance to the Basques so it bombing would send a clear message of the military power of the Nationalists to the Republicans. The raid was also an experiment and Guernica had been untouched by the war up to April 1937. No-one knew what a bombing raid would do to a city. A damaged city or one that had been heavily involved in the civil war would not give the same results as a city that was untouched.
The Condor Legion attacked in daylight and flew as low as 600 feet as it had no reason to fear any form of defence from the city. It was market day so the city centre was packed with people from the outlying area around Guernica. The first bombs fell on the city at 4.30 in the afternoon when the main square in the city centre was hit. The first target of the bombers was a main bridge that lead into the city. Apologists for the raid have stated that the Condor Legion had selected strategic targets and that the one failing of the raid was the Legion’s inability to accurately hit targets from height. The bombers that came in after the first wave instinctively targeted the area already on fire -again, the city centre.
By the time the Condor Legion had left, the centre of Guernica was in ruins. 1,654 people were killed and 889 wounded. The world was horrified but Franco denied that the raid ever took place. He blamed the destruction of Guernica on those who defended it
The Condor Legion returned in triumph as it had set out on a mission and returned intact. The raid was to have enormous consequences in the diplomatic workings of Europe with Chamberlain’s three meetings with Hitler in September 1938. Chamberlain, above all else, feared the possibility of a southern English city being similarly bombed. Therefore, what happened in Guernica in April 1937, was to impact what happened in western Europe in 1938. It also acted as a stimulus for Britain to modernise her outdated Royal Air Force.